On Tuesday, the Connecticut Senate narrowly voted to legalize marijuana in the state, a move that supporters believe will put the state at the forefront of efforts to make the drug more available for medical and recreational use.  The bill, which was introduced by state Sen. Kevin Witkos (D-Brooklyn) and state Sen. Jason Lewis (R-Whitinsville), still needs to pass the state House and be signed by Governor Dannel Malloy (D), but this is the closest that Connecticut has ever gotten to passing a marijuana legalization bill. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 years old and over. It would also allow for the cultivation of up to six marijuana plants.

Back in 2013, Connecticut lawmakers approved a bill expanding access to medical marijuana for people suffering from a wide range of medical conditions, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Last week, lawmakers once again voted to make medical marijuana legal in the state, this time with a provision that allows for use of the drug for anyone who is 18 or older.

In a surprisingly narrow 19-17 vote, the Senate early Tuesday approved a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut, sending the bill to the closely divided House of Representatives for the penultimate day of the 2021 legislative session. It was unclear whether the House had the votes, the time or the inclination to try to make a final decision before the midnight constitutional deadline on Wednesday, a task made even more difficult Monday by concerns about attempts to favor licensing for agricultural producers. We’re taking our time with it, said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, who led the task force that drafted the bill and oversaw the conduct of a strangely tense and lengthy Senate vote. Only the vote of retired police senator Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, kept the Senate from breaking a tie with Lt. Gov. Gov. Susan Bisiewicz. Six Democrats voted against, the other 11 Republicans opposed. But eleven minutes into the debate and the start of the vote, it was still unclear whether the bill would pass. The result is 16-16, with four Democrats absent: Steve Cassano of Manchester, Douglas McCrory of Hartford, Patricia Billie Miller of Stamford and Marilyn Moore of Bridgeport. Moore voted to make it 17-16 after nearly eight minutes of play. McCrory, angry that the Senate rejected the provision he wanted, voted 18-16 in favor three minutes later. Miller, who has said she has long opposed legalization, brought the 19th Amendment to a vote. Victory was assured when Cassano cast the final dissenting vote. A difficult vote, Moore said. I was still thinking at the end, Miller said. McCrory received no comment. The evening’s discussion reflected familiar arguments from the past, with fears that legalisation could lead to abuse and addiction reflecting the legacy of the discredited War on Drugs, which hit urban black communities hardest. McCrory, Miller and Moore are members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, which has pushed for social justice provisions that shift the bulk of cannabis revenue to the cities most affected by drug laws. It’s a bill that is 88 years past due, said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, referring to the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933. If you go back to the beginning of the last century, you could find cannabis in dispensaries, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and one of the bill’s lead sponsors. Then everything changed. According to Winfield, this led to a biased view of marijuana, with people viewing the drug in a derogatory manner because they associated it with Mexican immigrants, blacks, or counterculture hippies. The war on drugs, which began in the 1970s under the administration of President Richard Nixon and continued for decades, was in a sense a way of dealing with racial minorities. Entire communities have been wiped out, Winfield said. word-image-4575 MARK PAZNIOKAS: : CTMIRROR.ORG From left to right, Sens. Tony Hwang and Doug McCrory listen to Paul Formica talk about his own struggle with addiction. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he was less concerned about history than modern health threats, especially to young people. He noted that the cannabis debate began shortly after the Senate finally approved a pilot program for people with opioid disorders. Hey, what a session, Kissel said. Eighteen years old, you can play online, you can play sports. When you’re 21, you get high, you never have to leave your basement. Yes, this is progress. Governor Ned Lamont recently signed a sports betting legalization bill into law and supports the legalization of marijuana. Eighteen other states have legalized marijuana, including Massachusetts and New York. Other opponents shared personal stories of their addictions and fears about what legal cannabis may bring. As someone who grew up in a family of alcoholics and has dealt with drug addicts my entire life, I know all too well the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, said Senator Christine Cohen (D-Guilford). It tears apart families and changes the lives of users and everyone who comes into contact with them. Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, described himself as an addict from age 13 to 28, abusing alcohol, marijuana and other substances. But Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said it is better to regulate and tax the sale of legal marijuana than to ignore the black market. It’s here, he said. It’s a product that already exists. The bill allows the purchase and possession of marijuana from the age of 21. If the bill passes the House of Representatives, it would allow possession of 1.5 grams, plus another 5 grams at home or in a locked car, effective January 1. Legalization in January 2022. Retail sales of marijuana are not expected until May 2022. Home marijuana cultivation will be available to medical marijuana card holders starting Jan. 1. October 2022, and for the rest of us from July 2023. The bill provides for the automatic expungement of certain drug convictions and the establishment of an application process for the expungement of other convictions. Half of the initial permits for manufacturers and retailers would be reserved for social justice applicants, defined in the bill as a business that is at least 65% owned by low-income people who live in an area disproportionately affected by drug enforcement. The 15-member Social Equality Board will set the rules for social equality applicants and review their applications. The state will host two license lotteries, the first of which will be reserved for social justice applicants. The licenses cost $3 million. For the same money, a producer of medical marijuana can become a supplier of recreational marijuana. The bill was hastily rewritten Monday night to remove language that would have promoted a cultivation license for at least one former medical marijuana investor if he partnered with a city applicant with insufficient experience and capital. The wording was at the request of McCrory, who said his intention was to find an experienced, wealthy player with a social justice challenger. The prize for participating in the production lottery is $1,000. The winners must pay $3 million for the license. The bill includes a labor peace agreement that requires permits to be open to unionization. A Republican amendment to remove this provision failed by a majority vote. Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, who has worked as a police officer for 22 years, said legalizing the sale and use of marijuana would boost the illegal market, not undermine it. He said regulations allowing up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana plant material and up to 5 ounces in the trunk or glove box of a car make it easier for drug traffickers to transport the product. Vitkos, the former officer who voted for the bill, did not speak during the debate and could not be reached at the end of the debate. The Democrats who voted against the bill were Cassano, Cohen, Saud Anwar of South Windsor, Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport, Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Alex Kasser of Greenwich.

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